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The science behind dance innovation

Wayne McGregor’s dancers were studied over two weeks by a psychologist. Wayne McGregor’s dancers were studied over two weeks by a psychologist. (Zipporah Films)
By Tresca Weinstein
Albany Times Union / March 6, 2010

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ALBANY, N.Y. - When dancers improvise, do they think about how they’re moving, or does it just come naturally? And if they are thinking, what kinds of thoughts are they having?

That’s what Philip Barnard, a psychologist with the British Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England, set out to discover when he teamed up with the London-based company Wayne McGregor/Random Dance.

At the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Barnard conducted two weeks of workshops with the company’s dancers, looking at how they generate movement and exploring what kinds of tools might help them create fresher, more interesting choreography.

McGregor has long been fascinated by the conjunction of art with science and technology, a preoccupation reflected in many of his pieces for the company. One, “Engram,’’ uses memory and the brain as jumping-off points. Another, “AtaXia,’’ involves an extensive research project focused around the degenerative illness. Yet another, “Amu,’’ aimed at the physical and symbolic functions of the heart. It was developed in collaboration with heart-imaging specialists.

“Entity,’’ which features an original score by Coldplay collaborator Jon Hopkins and composer Jody Talbot and film/video design by Ravi Deepres, is inspired in part by the concept of artificial intelligence. As part of the creative process for the piece, McGregor assembled a think tank of experts (including Barnard) in the fields of psychology, computer science, and engineering.

Those conceptual discussions were translated into choreography in the studio, where McGregor’s typical process of making new work involves giving dancers task-based instructions (“sketch a shape in your mind and describe that shape with movement’’), allowing them free rein to create movement and then editing the phrases they produce.

“Working with Wayne is a process of continual discovery,’’ said dancer Jessica Wright, 26, who has been with the company for two years. “He has an incredible ability to draw out the creativity that lies within each of us.’’

The work Barnard is conducting now with the dancers will figure into the creation of the company’s next piece, a sequel to “Entity,’’ which McGregor will begin developing in the fall. In investigating their creative process, Barnard began by stopping the dancers in the midst of their improvisations and having them fill out questionnaires that got them thinking about what they were responding to while making movement - an emotional or verbal impulse, aural or visual stimuli, an idea or a mental image.

“When you talk to them, most dancers say they’re mostly reacting intuitively, but when we stop them and sample their thoughts, they’re much more likely to report action-based or verbal-based images,’’ Barnard said.